Jamming mobile phones – Security vs. rights

No Signal

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The Debate Over Cellphone Jamming published in the New York opens up some very interesting debates on how mobiles are used and perceived in societies today. Dealing with the US in particular, the article is based on a blog post by Bruce Schneier, a prominent computer security expert, on mobile phone jamming.

What’s interesting to read are the comments to the NY Times article as well as the original blog post. Opinion is divided between those who feel mobiles should be jammed (and in the US, the equipment that allows one to do so made legal) and others who feel that doing so could, among other pitfalls, thwart communications in an emergency in situ or the transmission of information of an emergency elsewhere.

But a more recent rationale for prohibiting jammers is that they could interfere with mobile phones – just as phones have become primary sources of communication for many people. In the case of an emergency, say, for instance, a robbery or accident, it’s the mobile phone they’d turn to, not a landline.

Though in the US equipment to jam mobile services is illegal, I myself have often been in places, for example in Washington D.C. and New York, where mobile phones simply don’t work. As many point out, does this make government agencies and private institutions (incl. cinemas, art galleries and theatres) who jam signals culpable under the rule of law?

On the other hand, given the rise of IEDs and other remote controlled explosive devices triggered by mobiles and other uses of mobile phones by terrorists, others submit that some degree of mobile phone jamming is necessary and desirable.

I bring out a similar issue in Sri Lanka in a recent post on this blog. The problem is different in Sri Lanka, in that telcos themselves switch off mobile data and voice services (in addition perhaps to more localised jamming employed by the security forces) in response to Government edicts in the embattled North and East of the country. However, in both cases, the essential question raised by the denial of mobile phone services is the same.

If communications are cut off or denied for citizens, is it a denial of their human rights (and in particular, Article 19 of the UDHR) in societies, regions and communities where information and communications are increasingly (in some cases solely) mediated by mobile phones?

Also read my exchange with Paul Currion here, where I explore this issue (albeit in a Sri Lankan framework) at greater length.

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